Teddy Bears – Scheduled Railroads

“We run a scheduled railroad”

Last week I was reading a Rex Stout Nero Wolfe Mystery, The League of Frightened Men, published in 1935. Known for his verbal bashings, the title character offers the following in a conversation with a suspect in a murder.

“It occurs to me that no publication either before or since the invention of printing, no theological treatise and no political or scientific creed, has ever been as narrowly dogmatic or as offensively arbitrary in its prejudices as a railway timetable…. You know that idea could be developed into a first-rate little article.  Six hundred to seven hundred words, about The Tyranny of the Wheel, you could call it , with a colored margin of trains …”

Hmmm!   I like the suggested title and perhaps I can turn that into a future Full Spectrum. But the truth is that  ¾ of a century later, the freight railroad schedules are anything but schedules. One of my favorite quotes is from a discussion with a Class I Service Design executive several years ago when I questioned him about how scheduled his railroad was. He stated:  “Well! We’re not totally unscheduled.”  That’s seems about right given that another knowledgeable individual stated recently that only 30% or so of a railroad’s operations are truly scheduled.  But then again, what is a scheduled railroad?

For the traditional operations manager, a schedule seems to be the lineup that was set up within the last 24 hours with continuous changes as deemed necessary.  That is not a schedule as in how an airline runs with specific crews, specific aircraft, and even specific gates locked into a specific time table.  Indeed, there are some reasons why a railroad has difficulties in maintaining a schedule that has been developed by Service Design, e.g., a labor action at a major seaport.  But there are so many reasons that are truly manageable, and therefore not justified excuses, for going off schedule. For example, there are major shippers who determine when the trains would run. The operating executives will use that as an excuse as to why the schedule must be flexible. What they don’t ask is what does the railroad need to do for that shipper to get a real schedule? E.g., more reliable service, contractual agreements with potential penalties for both parties, etc. One of the major explanations from railroad management of why their  railroad must have a flexible schedule is that the railroads with which they interchange do not run to schedule.  This mutual abuse is always the other railroad’s fault, it seems.

But what is the problem for not maintaining a true schedule.  Again, I quote an ex-executive for a Class I when I asked him if he ran a scheduled railroad.   “ Hell yeah, we run a scheduled railroad. And, almost every day I am able to save a few crew starts by cutting short trains.”  Then I asked: “But what happens when the locomotives don’t show up in Chicago?” Without hesitation he proudly proclaimed. “ No problem, we have plenty of locomotives up there.”   The example here is that operating executives can’t stand what they believe are the inefficiencies of short trains.  What they don’t understand is that unstructured inefficiencies that they create by chaotic management of the lineup that has been configured by Service Design are greater than the structured inefficiencies that were built into the schedule.  The latter is what airlines do with their schedules. It has only been in the last few years that major airlines have learned to compliment monthly scheduling with daily adjustments. By doing so, they risk losing customers that get angered by canceled flights.  They understand their business and they know that their overall on-time performance is actually quite good. That’s the trade-off that they can make … that they deserve.  Railroads are no way near that level of customer reliability.

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2 Responses to “Teddy Bears – Scheduled Railroads”
  • Spencer Naith:

    Scheduled railroading seems to be a North American phobia. In European and Australasian freight operations, it’s the norm, and has been for generations. Scheduled ops help keep customers’ inventories down when they know you can deliver “just-in-time”. And with intelligent top-down operations & service planning, you can get good utilisation of wagon and loco time. I agree about cancelling short trains – it’s a great way to introduce chaos into an otherwise smooth running service!

  • Jeremy Williams:

    Customer service versus railroad efficiency is an imaginary conflict. An efficient railroad serves its customers, the more efficient it is, the better it does it.
    What masks the reality is precisely the \”float\”, unused capacity which is available in all senses of the term, and which may be as you point out the consequence of inefficiencies rather than the panacea for them. In Europe as Spencer noted scheduled services are the norm, as there isn\’t much in the way of spare capacity and there is no choice left – schedule or die.
    This is getting to the point that air-traffic-control-like \”slots\” are used on many busy lines, and the ambition of many dispatching rooms is to run a \”minus-five-plus-five\” service – that is, less than five cancelled trains per day in the whole country, and no train more than five minutes late.
    To get there goes against flexibility: Switzerland adapted the whole of its network to the \”hour/half-hour\” schedule, where the trains arrive and depart around the hour or half-hour and journey times between major nodes are set to be equal to the hour or half-hour or mulitples thereof. Once the major services are linked up, anything left in the train sheet can be used for \”flexibility\”, disaster recovery or extra services as need may arise.

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